60th Annual GRAMMY Awards - Show
Beyonce, Jay-Z and Blue Ivy Carter attends the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

An Ode To Jay-Z, The Ultimate Rap Dad

Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.

Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.

***

Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.

What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.

Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.

But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.

***

As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.

In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.

Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.

The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.

Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Getty Images

Tyler Perry, Popeye’s Chicken, And Who We Call ‘Coon’

Black shame has been something of an online talking point in recent weeks. From a chicken sandwich’s bemusing popularity to a movie mogul opening a major studio on the back of a controversial cinematic legacy, big headlines have led to heated conversations about who or what embarrasses us as Black folks. This is an ongoing discussion – about “coonery” and how it affects Black America and Black Americans’ perception of themselves. Filmmaker Tyler Perry’s successes, a stabbing at a Popeye’s chicken, and the resurrection of a blaxploitation cult classic have all offered interesting peeks into how we see the more polarizing aspects of Black popular culture.

But there’s still no clear answer to the question: who, or what, exactly, is a “coon?”

The opening of Tyler Perry’s studio in Atlanta has been hailed as a major event for Black Hollywood; a moment where Black ambition and individuality broke new ground for Black storytelling and ownership of that storytelling. But no Tyler Perry success is an easy thumbs-up; from the moment the writer/director/actor broke through with Diary Of A Mad Black Woman back in 2005, Perry has been a polarizing figure for Black critics and audiences. While beloved by his fanbase, Perry, with his broad folksy comedy characters and church fan messaging, has been blasted as a purveyor of “coonery” for years. Notables like Oprah Winfrey have remained staunchly pro-Perry, while fellow filmmaker Spike Lee was once one of his harshest detractors.

"Each artist should be allowed to pursue their artistic endeavors,” Lee said in an interview with Black Enterprise in 2009. “But I still think there is a lot of stuff out today that is 'coonery buffoonery'."

Perry responded to Lee in a 2009 60 Minutes interview. "I would love to read that [criticism] to my fanbase. ... That pisses me off. It is so insulting. It's attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist, and that is why there is no material speaking to them, speaking to us."

The idea that what Perry does is “coonery” is complicated and has always raised questions. Perry’s brand of screwball humor (particular in his Madea films and former sitcoms) isn’t all that different from slapstick and over-the-top characters that we’ve seen from the likes of Martin Lawrence and Marlon Wayans. Lawrence’s beloved 90s sitcom Martin had its detractors during its heyday (and now), but there doesn’t appear to be the same level of contempt as compared to Perry; judging from how popular his old show has remained, its fair to suggest that Lawrence is beloved by many of the same people who have seen Perry’s Madea movies as embarrassing. As Perry himself mentioned in his rebuttal to Spike Lee, he speaks to his fanbase—a base that largely goes ignored by many of the more critically-acclaimed Black storytellers in cinema. While auteurs like Lee or Barry Jenkins may speak to a specific type of urban experience, Perry has always been most connected to a sensibility that’s more southern, rural and Black Christian-leaning. The fact that his brand of more countrified broad humor is so unsettling for some Black folks indicates an ever-present sense of shame for country Black-isms--particularly when they’re presented in slapstick comedy. Perry has built his empire on Black audiences, yet certain Black critics have always acted as though that audience doesn’t matter. Who gets the final say on Blackness in entertainment?

There are other reasons people criticize Tyler Perry: a penchant for heavy-handed moralizing in his movies, a tendency towards colorism, questionable labor policies – that’s all valid. It’s just as valid as calling out Spike for the choices he’s made regarding female characters in his films or addressing the colorism of Martin’s Pam jokes. But those specific criticisms aren’t inherently connected to “coonery” and what that uniquely damning insult signifies.

Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name premiered on Netflix in October to widespread acclaim, with the Rudy Ray Moore biopic earning Murphy his best reviews in a decade. The film focuses on Moore’s determination to make his Dolemite comedy character a movie star, independently using family, friends, and associates to get his movie off the ground. Hustling his way up from standup through hit comedy records to actually seeing his movie on the big screen, Moore is portrayed as a symbol of Black individuality and self-actualization. As I was watching his story unfold, I was reminded of the parallels to Perry. Like Perry, Moore and his team wouldn’t really be considered great filmmakers, but also like Perry, Dolemite’s appeal doesn’t really lie in craft or execution—Moore simply told stories that resonated with his particular audience. In one scene in ...My Name, when Moore watches an Indianapolis crowd guffawing at his low-budget blaxploitation spectacle, the sense of pride he feels isn’t just in what he’s accomplished, it's in who he’s doing it for: an audience that wanted Dolemite humor and camp—an audience that existed even within the broader blaxploitation fanbase.

With so many raving about Dolemite Is My Name and Murphy, there’s a question of hindsight being 20/20 and how Black art is often policed through a sense of shame. How many of those applauding this 2019 biopic would have cringed seeing Dolemite in 1975, a jive-talking, pudgy quasi-pimp at the center of a shoddily made flick? Now, that story is being told with reverence and heart, and it speaks to how, once you can put some distance between time and place, it’s easy to see a bigger picture and celebrate the spirit—even when the end result may not be to your taste.

When Popeye’s now-mythic Spicy Chicken Sandwich made its return last week, the online jokes and customer enthusiasm was met with criticism and handwringing from those who obviously felt Black folks were falling into a stereotype over fried chicken. When a news report revealed that someone had died violently at a Popeye’s over an argument while in line, many bemoaned how embarrassing Black folks had supposedly gotten over this sandwich. Of course, there wasn’t a widespread epidemic of chicken sandwich-related violence, it was just an incident that happened at a restaurant. But because the shame was already boiling over in some Black folks, this became a chance to finger-wag the culture for everything from poor eating habits to not supporting Black business to voter apathy. In a society that teaches us racism from the moment we are aware of race, it’s imperative that Black folks un-learn Black shame. And it’s time to stop running to “coon” any time you believe someone fits a stereotype racism taught you to be embarrassed by.

Black folks could stand to be a lot less embarrassed by Black folks.

Who “fits the stereotype” isn’t really what’s most damaging to Black people in America – it’s the fact that these stereotypes exist in the first place. Tyler Perry’s characters weren’t created by some outsider and foisted upon Black audiences from a place of derision; they’re affectionate parodies of his own family, written by and for someone who knows that churchy, southern voice and isn’t so ashamed by it that they can’t have a little fun with it. In the same spirit that we now applaud figures like Moore and southern rap impresarios like Master P (who built an empire with a No Limit Records label that catered to its audience while often being criticized for mediocrity by rap “purists” of the mid-90s). The shame in Popeye’s popularity, the shame in a Madea character, the shame in so much of what we see in Black people—is only there because racism put it there. Before deciding to speak against a Black creator as a “coon,” shouldn’t we be sure to not marginalize an audience? Black art is still Black art even when it doesn’t necessarily speak to your specific Black experience.

And beyond even art, maybe it’s past time that we just stop being so ashamed of Black people.

“Coon” has merit, no doubt. But when it’s tethered to a sense of embarrassment, it can become a weapon of respectability. Being who you are, telling your story, maintaining your voice—those things shouldn’t make you a “coon.” Even if your voice is loud and country, even if your voice is problematic in certain areas, even if your voice doesn’t match my own—you aren’t a “coon” until you begin shucking and jiving for the status quo; not just because you’re being you, regardless of whether they’re watching or not. That’s an important distinction that often gets lost in the haze of embarrassment. Using descriptors like “country” and “ghetto” as pejoratives is an indication that something taught us that these types of Black folks “make us look bad.” Believing that would mean that we’re buying into the lens of other folks. Do we really think Black experiences, Black voices should be shaped by how racism sees us? Because if so, that’s the real shame. 

--

Todd “Stereo” Williams is a writer/editor/media producer based in New York City. An outspoken veteran entertainment journalist, his work has been featured in The Daily Beast, XXL, Ebony and The Undefeated. He's also an accomplished screenwriter and documentarian who's co-produced films such as Exubia and Beautiful Skin.

Continue Reading
Nickelodeon

How 'My Brother And Me' Resonated With A Generation Of Young Black Men

In terms of cultural impact and influence, the '90s ranks as one of the defining decades for black entertainment of the past century. This proves particularly true in the realm of television, with a number of landmark programs debuting that reflected the life and times of blacks in the urban community and beyond. While the '80s produced groundbreaking sitcoms like The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Matters, 227, Amen, and Frank's Place, all of which featured predominantly black casts, these shows were few and far in between.

However, the arrival of a new decade coincided with an influx of programs starring black leads, with shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, Hangin with Mr. Cooper, Roc, Thea and South Central all making their debut. While these shows were hits across various age groups, they all starred and revolved around actors of age, in some form or fashion. One of the first programs to divert from this formula and place the focus squarely on adolescents was My Brother and Me, a sitcom that often gets overlooked when listing the pivotal shows of its era.

Making its debut on October 15, 1994, My Brother and Me was among the first live-action series to air on Nickelodeon and the first to feature a predominantly black cast. Created by Ilunga Adell and Calvin Brown Jr., and directed by Arlando Smith and Adam Weissman, the show centers around brothers Alfred "Alfie" Parker and Derek "Dee-Dee" Parker, the two youngest children of parents Jennifer (Karen E. Fraction) and Roger Parker (Jim R. Coleman) who experience the typical growing pains of pre-pubescent young men that are coming of age.

Additional core cast members include Alfie and Dee-Dee's older sister Melanie Parker (Aisling Sistrunk),, Alfie's best friend Milton "Goo" Berry (Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr.) who has an infatuation with Melanie, Melanie's best friend and Donnell's older sister Dionne Wilburn (Amanda Seales), Dee-Dee's best friend and Dionne’s younger brother Donnell Wilburn (Stefan J. Wernli),, Dee-Dee’s other best friend Harry White (Keith "Bubba" Naylor), and local comic book store owner Mrs. Pinckney (Kym Whitley).

Set in the suburbs of the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina, My Brother and Me was the Nickelodeon's answer to Sister, Sister, a sitcom on ABC starring identical twins Tia and Tamera Mowry that had debuted earlier that year. With a beat writer for the local newspaper for a father and a school teacher for a mother, Alfie and Dee-Dee enjoyed a stable living environment in which they could thrive academically and socially while simply being kids. A middle-class family with access to all of the basic amenities, the Parkers' economic situation was in stark contrast to the usual scratching-and-surviving, rags-to-riches themes often associated with sitcoms geared towards people of color.

While removed from the harsh realities that often accompany life in the inner-city, the Parker boys were drawn in by the allure of street culture, with Alfie and Dee-Dee both being avid fans of hip hop music, fashion, and style. This love affair would be the driving force behind various episodes, most notably "Dee-Dee's Haircut," during which Dee-Dee allows Goo to butcher his hair after marveling at fellow student Kenny's "Cool Dr. Money"-inspired haircut. Going as far as handpicking designs out of a rap magazine Donell borrows from his sister Dionne, Dee-Dee goes to the extreme in an attempt to mirror Kenny and Cool Dr. Money, a testament to the influence hip hop holds over him. His affinity for the culture is also reflected in the "Donnell's Birthday Party" episode, during which the impressionable youngster mimicking dance moves from a rap video in hopes of tightening up his dance skills.

Alfie and Dee-Dee may have been the intended stars of the show, but to many viewers, the most memorable character from My Brother and Me was Goo, who stole scenes with his humorous wisecracks and mischievous hijinks, often at the expense of Dee-Dee and his friends. From showering Mrs. Parker with disarming compliments to masterminding various plots and schemes in an attempt to get himself and Alfie out of trouble, Goo proved to be the most entertaining member of the show, exuding swagger and confidence that are palpable to the viewer and as hip hop as it gets. On the other hand, Alfie, who is not as overtly demonstrative in his rap fandom as his younger brother or Goo, reps his allegiance to the culture more subtly, with his haircut, backward caps and boisterous mannerisms.

While race was never a prevalent topic on the show, if one was to look closer between the lines, My Brother and Me was unapologetically black and pridefully so. Take, for instance, the various nods to HBCU culture throughout the show, including Roger Parker's various North Carolina Central University sweatshirts and hats, Alfie's Morehouse fit, and insignias from various black fraternities. One other common thread of the show was its incorporation of sports, starting with the Parker household's fandom of Charlotte's local professional franchises on full display, as Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Panthers memorabilia are all visible throughout the household. Cameos also included appearances from NBA stars Kendall Gill and Dennis Scott, the latter of whom teaches Alfie, the superior athlete of the Parker brothers, a lesson in selflessness and teamwork by cutting him from the school basketball team in "The Basketball Tryouts" episode.

Of all of the aspects of My Brother and Me that made the show a game-changer, the fact that it was one of the first times young black males saw themselves in characters on the TV is the most enduring. While plenty of shows and networks fixated on coming-of-age storylines centered around the privileged youth of white America, My Brother and Me provided the alternative, promoting the bond of brotherhood and family values with each episode aired. Preceding shows like Kenan & Kel and Cousin Skeeter, both of which implemented overt comedic or fictional elements, My Brother and Me was a realistic glimpse at the life of the average black boy in America without the overarching narratives of impoverishment, temptation, and despair. For many young black men born in the '80s, the show left an indelible impact on them and holds a place near to their heart a quarter-century later.

In spite of its critical acclaim and popularity, My Brother and Me only aired for one season, as it was canceled after airing its final episode on January 15, 1995. The network would air reruns into the early 2000s before returning briefly during The '90s Are All That block on TeenNick in December 2013, the last time the show would appear on television. In June 2014, Nickelodeon released My Brother & Me: The Complete Series as a two-disc DVD, giving a new generation of viewers and longtime fans of the show an opportunity to relive the magic that the show captured during its short, yet unforgettable run.

In the years following My Brother and Me's cancellation, many of the actors and actresses from the show would fail to find their footing in the entertainment industry, resulting in their acting careers fading into obscurity. Arthur Reggie III scored a few additional credits, appearing in the TV shows Sliders and C-Bear and Jamal, as well as the 1998 film Bulworth, but later transitioned into a rap career, performing under the name Show Bizness. My Brother and Me would mark Ralph Woolfolk's last appearance as an actor, as he decided to leave the industry behind and focus on his education, pursuing a degree in English at Morehouse College in Atlanta, while also attending law school. He is also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and currently serves as a police officer for the city of Atlanta. Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr. scored bit roles in the TV shows Sweet Justice and Sister, Sister in the subsequent years after the show, while Aisling Sistrunk, Stefan J. Wernli and Keith "Bubba" Naylor would never act professionally again.

However, a few members of the cast were able to sustain viable acting careers well beyond My Brother and Me's cancellation, most notably Amanda Seales, Karen E. Fraction and Jim Coleman. Seales would rebrand herself as Amanda Diva and become a successful media personality before transitioning back into acting, last appearing as Tiffany DuBois on HBO's "Insecure." In 2019, Seales debuted an HBO Comedy Special I Be Knowin', and was chosen as the emcee for NBC's comedy competition, Bring the Funny. Jim Coleman has kept himself busy with various roles over the past two decades, last appearing in "The Council," and continues to receive steady work. Karen Fraction would add a few additional credits to her resume after "My Brother and Me," but passed away on October 30, 2007, after a five year battle with breast cancer. She is survived by her two children, Lauren Elizabeth Jean and Lawrence Wm. Morris, and her husband Lawrence Hamilton. And last, but not least, Kym Whitley would enjoy a fruitful career on television and on the big screen, appearing in dozens of shows and films throughout her lengthy career, with her latest role being Mrs. Malinky in the Netflix animated comedy Pinky Malinky.

In the time since the debut of My Brother and Me, a lot has changed in terms of the presence and representation of black youth on television and beyond. A number of black actors and actresses have had the opportunity to shine in a big way, including Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) Zendaya (Shake It Up), Kyle Massey (Corey in the House), Keke Palmer (True Jackson, VP), Miles Brown (Black-Ish) and Alex R. Hibbert (The Chi) all among the more prominent child stars making major waves on TV over the past two decades. That said, 25 years later, the fact remains that My Brother and Me was ahead of the curve as one of the first instances of seeing ourselves in a positive and uplifting light on the small screen.

Continue Reading
Raphael Saadiq poses for a portrait during the BET Awards 2019 at Microsoft Theater on June 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California.
Bennett Raglin

Raphael Saadiq Dissects Addiction From All Angles On 'Jimmy Lee'

Near the end of Raphael Saadiq's Jimmy Lee—the producer/singer/songwriter/instrumentalist's fifth solo album, and his first in eight years—comes the musical and thematic moment that's perhaps the most honest but most opaque on an album largely defined by pulled-back armor and exposed exteroceptors. This transparent yet dishonest climax comes in the form of "Rikers Island Redux," a spoken word performance delivered by actor Daniel J. Watts with slam poetry defiance—it's outward-pointing at things too large to get a hand on, full of defensive aggrandizement and self-satisfied puns. "We got the same glass ceiling but I'm supposed to be thankful for my sunroof/ And massah's still trying to trick himself into believing he picked the cotton, too" he decries while comparing himself and us/we (Black people) to Malcolm X, MLK, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Optimus Prime. "It's complex how being born with this complexion ups the likelihood of dying in a prison complex/ And orange ain't the new black/ Black is the same-same black/ But this ain't just for Black folks," he continues as if this is an album about racism when it isn't. Even if it is.

Jimmy Lee is primarily about Jimmy Lee Baker, Saadiq's older brother who died of a heroin overdose in the 1990s, and secondarily about Jimmy Lee as us. "It's not a homage record; it's just a hashtag to Jimmy," the singer shared before the album's release. And in the same way that hashtags of Black victims of police violence encapsulate feelings of pain and loss that transcend the names of the fallen, Jimmy Lee is incredibly more expansive than its 39-minute running time. For the most part, Raphael Saadiq's albums have never been long affairs (his solo debut, Instant Vintage was 76 minutes, but 2002's Ray Ray was 49 minutes; they've basically grown slightly short since) and they have almost always had music and sound as the central conceit. Yet here, Saadiq doesn't mine music history as much as he digs, for the first time as an artist, into the specifics of his personal story. Including Jimmy Lee, he's lost four of his siblings to a mix of violence, drugs, suicide, and police activity—and all of those subjects are present on this record; if not as direct touchstones, then just as the contours that provide the acoustics to hope and despair and entrapment. On "Rearview," the album's closer, Kendrick Lamar asks, "How can I save the world, stuck in this box?" and it's not clear whether the box is literal or metaphorical, self-constructed or an ensnarement by one of the many manifestations of society as an antagonist to Black lives.

"Rearview" is interesting because it features perhaps the greatest rapper living, but he's not credited as a cameo, and he's not quite rapping; he's more of a floating echo of a conscious. The song interpolates a piano riff from Bobby Ellis and The Desmond Miles Seven's "Step Softly," which was famously used on Ol Dirty Bastard's "Brooklyn Zoo"—and ODB remains hip-hop's most iconic addiction tragedy. Rikers Island is not just the place where the Wu-Tang Clan once performed while their member was an inmate, it's also the name of the two songs preceding "Rearview," including the one where Watts, a guy maybe best known as an ex-convict on Tracy Morgan's The Last O.G., railed against the prison industrial complex and the unseen thoroughfares that fill it with Black bodies.

This may seem like wiredrawing, but it's not in the context of an album that primarily centers on dealing with drug addiction. Jimmy Lee pulls its greatest strengths from subconscious connections because to be an addict is to be a magician, an assassin, and a poet all at once. To say that to be an addict is to be a liar is to absolve and ignore that we are all liars, both to ourselves and to others. To put addiction in terms of the upfront costs that an addict thinks about (the price of acquiring the vice) ignores the collateral taxes of the masks and perfumes used to cover our tracks, and—ultimately—the tolls of severed relationships, broken families, missed opportunities, hurt people left behind.

The album opens with "Sinners Prayer," a needle-point recollection of a police state ("Eight millimeters/ And microscopes/ Fingers on the triggers/ Aimed at my dome") that quickly morphs into a call for divine assistance: "Hope the Most High/ Can see my heart is/ In the right place/ My hands are folded/ My knees are bending." The opposing forces here are disembodied—the police are never mentioned with distinction and the narrator is arguing with his partner about money: "We ain't got none/ Our baby daughter/ May not see five." It's not important why they're broke; it's not important what ails their child. What's important is the sense of despondency that leads to prayer: "This kind of hurt can't be/ Be justified."

What's even more important is that by the next song, "So Ready," Jimmy Lee as us has been failed by God and is damaging his lover and best friend by damaging himself: "I never come home at night/ And you stay by my side/ But then I broke your heart/ I went too far/ I'm still out here living wrong/ The drugs were too strong." One track later, on "This World is Mad," we're stuck facing the behind-the-back jeers of one's family and extended family of community—"Trying to be a king/ When everyone around him/ Sees the clown and/ They're laughing at him." At this point, Jimmy Lee begins to get grand and paranoid, but no longer told from the first person (if only for a moment), as if Raphael needs to see the best in his brother, but also can’t directly handle the psychic weight of fully stepping into the shoes of the dead. He's not quite making excuses and rationalizations for the main character but he does start to blame outside forces more directly—"This world is drunk and the people are mad"—while getting more metaphoric, even as he goes into detail: "He's always in three places/ Spaces undefined/Heart is always racing/ For something he will never find." Here, the album begins to present itself as Raphael Saadiq's best album that's also the hardest to listen to.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Celebrating Jimmy Lee's Born Day, the love will never change. #JimmyLee #thefunniestever #puppiesforgifts #thoughtfulman #thedude #jjdad

A post shared by Raphael Saadiq (@raphael_saadiq) on Aug 31, 2019 at 9:53am PDT

The music is as accomplished and confidently unshowy as one would expect from the man who was indispensable to songs like D'Angelo's lustful "Untitled (How Does it Feel)," albums like Solange's A Seat At The Table, the music of new jack soul pioneers Tony! Toni! Toné!—who always balanced themes of family and relational intimacy, as well as the short-lived supergroup Lucy Pearl—which focused almost solely on romantic love. With every song produced or co-produced by Saadiq, Jimmy Lee is sonically defined by low chords, space-giving drums, and rock guitars—dark sounds for dark matters. It's slow-fever blues and desperate gospel that shifts from longing for redemption to turning inward because that's how addiction works. But it’s not all one-note. Jimmy Lee showcases a depth of references, as Saadiq plunges into the DNA of the styles that have influenced him over his three decades of making professional music—leaning on, reimagining, and stripping down material from sources including electronic music to nu-wave pop to emerge with exposed nerves that feel organically cohesive as a body.

The sounds work as a backdrop for these subjects because it feels like the play of opposites of addiction—bouncing lows and soaring highs, smooth descents into jagged edges, hard-earned climbs into transcendence. “And as random as I sound/ I still manage to hold it down,” Saadiq sings on “I’m Feeling Love,” the album’s most straight-forward R&B number that, like D’Angelo’s “Brown Sugar,” is a love song about a vice. On “My Walk,” he’s a firebrand rasping from the pulpit and taking it to the streets with a martial bop that topically references the talent shows, saxophones, and betrayal on his way to becoming a full-fledged musician: “Very next morning I had a horn in my hand/ I thought I was in the Southern Marching Band/ I love Jimmy, but Jimmy smoke crack and sold my horn/ Jimmy shot heroin and he was my momma's son.” The song ends abruptly shortly thereafter and the next song, “Belongs to God,” feels like a redemptive moment of church blues handled by Rev. Elijah Baker Sr.—it’s actually a slight remake of the gospel singer’s 2017 song, “My Body Belongs to God.” Again, Saadiq steps back as if even speaking from the abyss of his brother’s pain is too much for him. But the album has already shown us that the pull of addiction was too strong for Jimmy Lee to be saved by God’s hands.

Because to be an addict is to be cop, killer, and judge to one's self. It's to occupy the roles of warden, jailor, and inmate (he's always in three places). To be an addict is to feel like a time traveler frozen in a moment that you are not sure you want to get out of, even if you can. "Even when I'm clean/ I'm still a dope fiend," our narrator says on "Kings Fall." It's the album's fifth song, the one after "Something Keeps Calling," where he sings "I feel the burdens on me/ Something keeps calling me/ This is so heavy for me." Yes, he detoured into the second-person on "The World is Drunk," but he put Jimmy Lee as us back in our own body because addiction is a reversal of gazes. Most people blame others in public and ourselves in quiet times, but addiction makes us blame ourselves and only slightly looking out at the world as a cause of our afflictions at our most denying lows. And that's perhaps what makes the closing suite of songs both honest and dishonest.

"Rikers Island Redux" is a coda to the song before it, "Rikers Island," which has a choir (which is actually a multi-tracked version of Saadiq himself) singing that there are "too many niggas in Rikers Island/Why must it be?" It feels like that last big statement Saadiq wants made before he takes the album out, but it's also the one he has been subtly making all along. Drug addiction cannot be separated from the pipe to prison pipeline, nor can the prison industrial complex be separated from slavery, any more than an addict can be separated from the failures of a society. It's no mistake that Jimmy Lee begins with persecution, financial distress, and being alienated from community. So, yes, as Watts claims, "this ain't just for Black folks." But, no, it is.

Jimmy Lee is about the particular forces that viewed the crack epidemic as a commerce center for incarceration but see opioid addiction as a disease to be treated. It's about the law enforcement policies and a legal system that created New York's inordinately punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws while hitting Johnson & Johnson—a company with over $80 billion in yearly revenue—with a relatively paltry $572 million fine for its role in Oklahoma's opioid crisis. The Notorious B.I.G. once claimed that he "sold more powder than Johnson & Johnson," but that's an unabashed lie that tells the truth about how desires and capitalism and racism swirl on themselves, like an ouroboros that eats but never gets full, dancing on its own greed and hate, feeding us sadness and truth and escape, as if anything can ever break a cycle that begins with the individual but cannot be divorced from a society that can only maintain its fullness by making us all hungry for… something.

These ideas repeat themselves like a vicious groundhog day, revealing meaning and connections while the themes bubble from unspoken knowing into pointed lyricism the same way an addict can tell a story that says so much about human truth when they're lying to cover their tracks, both figurative and literal. It's the way that 39 minutes seem so much longer; the way a hashtag says so much more than a name; the way that an addict is a magician, able to be in three places at once—talking about Jimmy Lee as a person, Jimmy Lee as us, and Jimmy Lee as the inevitable outcome of a world equation that has been built on Black labor and genius while giving us almost none of the rewards or fruits of our contributions.

On "Glory to the Veins," Raphael Saadiq admits, "There's too many people walking behind me/ I need you beside me, please come and find me/ It's been so cold/ The light could blind me." He seems to be talking about Jimmy speaking to God, but he may also be talking about himself to us, or about us talking to the world. Because he, like his brother, is able to be in three places at once.

Continue Reading

Top Stories